- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Obama administration joined a federal judge Wednesday in urging Congress to end a racial disparity by equalizing prison sentences for dealing and using crack versus powdered cocaine.

“Jails are loaded with people who look like me,” U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who is black, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the administration believes Congress’ goal “should be to completely eliminate the disparity” between the two forms of cocaine. “A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair,” Mr. Breuer testified.

It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the crime and drugs subcommittee, said, “Under current law, mere possession of five grams of crack - the weight of five packets of sweetener - carries the same sentence as distribution of half a kilogram of powder, or 500 packets of sweetener.”

Mr. Durbin said more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were black, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are black.

Congress enacted the disparity during an epidemic of crack cocaine in the 1980s, but the senator said lawmakers erred in assuming that violence would be greater among those using crack.

Judge Walton said, “we were mistaken” to enact the disparity. “There’s no greater violence in cases before me.”

He added that jurors have expressed an unwillingness to serve in crack-cocaine cases because of the disparity.

President Obama had called for such a change while campaigning for the White House.

Mr. Breuer said the government should focus on punishing drug trafficking networks, like the cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico, and those whose crimes include acts of violence.

The Obama administration is also seeking to increase drug treatment as well as rehabilitation programs for felons after they’re released from prison.

In New York last month, state leaders reached an agreement to repeal the last vestiges of the Rockefeller drug laws, once seen as the harshest in the nation.

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